loving-kindness meditation

What do you call metta?

Dalai Lama

What’s your preferred translation of “metta”?

As a kind of postscript to our recent Urban Retreat, which was on the theme of metta, I’m going to share my thoughts about some of the terms people use, and propose an uncommon, but I think good, English term.

1. Lovingkindness

The most common English term that people use for metta is “lovingkindness.” That’s pretty much the standard term. A search for “metta is loving-kindness” on Google brought up 17,200 results.

What’s good about it?

It’s an old and well-established term in English. You might be surprised how old it is; it’s found for example in a 1611 translation of the Bible (this example is from the Book of Psalms):

I have not concealed thy lovingkindness and thy truth from the great congregation.
Withhold not thou thy tender mercies from me, O Lord:
Let thy lovingkindness and thy truth continually preserve me.

What’s not so good about it?

Well, how often do you hear people who aren’t Buddhists talking about “lovingkindness”? It’s a rare term, and because it’s rare it doesn’t resonate much on an emotional level. And so it’s rather abstract, and ends up suggesting that metta is something remote from our everyday experience; something we’ve yet to experience.

2. Love

Love is again less common than lovingkindness. A search for “metta is love” on Google brought up 34,800 results.

What’s good about it?

We can all resonate with the word “love.” It’s a very warm and emotional term.

What’s not so good about it?

The word “love” is very ambiguous, and we’re always having to qualify it in various ways, by specifying that it’s “non-romantic love” for example (but even that’s very ambiguous, because there are many kinds of non-romantic love, including love of our children, love or our country, loving chocolate, etc.).

And even the “love they neighbor” kind of love doesn’t necessarily fit very well with what metta is. For example, can you love your neighbor but not like them? Possibly, but it’s not very obvious to everyone what that means. But you can have metta for someone you don’t like.

Also, “love” is very much understood as an emotion — something we feel — while metta is a volition or intention — something we want. Specifically, metta is wanting beings (ourselves included) to be well and happy.

Which brings up another problem. “Self-love” has a bad reputation in the west, and it conjures up narcissism and arrogance.

3. Friendliness

Friendliness is less commonly used than lovingkindness as a term for metta, but it’s not uncommon. A search for “metta is friendliness” on Google brought up 2,180 results.

What’s good about it?

Friendliness is a good translation of metta, because it’s related to the Pāli word mitta, meaning friend. Metta isn’t about friendship, but it is about friendliness. It has the advantage of being a word in common use, and it’s one that we can relate to more easily than lovingkindness. Friendliness again is more of an attitude or intention, which is closer to metta’s role as a volition.

What’s not so good about it?

The word friendliness sounds a bit weak, and metta can feel quite intense (although it doesn’t have to). What do you think of when you call the word “friendliness” to mind? What images do you see? I see someone at a party, socializing, which isn’t really what metta is about.

4. Universal Love

It’s a term that used, although “metta is universal love” brings up only 9 results on Google. It’s found in books going back to the early 20th century, and I think it used to be more common. In my early days of practice, people would often say that metta was universal love, or universal lovingkindness.

What’s good about it?

Well, technically metta is an unbounded (appamāṇa) state of mind, which is to say that it’s not “bounded” (pamāṇa) by conditional relationships, which the word “universal” tries to communicate.

What’s not so good about it?

However, anything that’s “universal” seems pretty much out of reach. What images come to mind when you think of “universal love”? Are those images related to your day-to-day experience? “Universal love” suggests a degree of love that’s almost unimaginable. Sure, you have days when you’re in a good mood and you feel affection for lots of people, but do you love everyone? Every single person? That’s what the term seems to suggest. And probably because that seems to unattainable, “universal love” isn’t very popular as a translation for metta.

5. Goodwill

Goodwill isn’t a common translation of metta, but Bhikkhu Thanissaro, who has contributed the bulk of translations to the wonderful Access to Insight, prefers it. I only found 172 results, however, for “metta is goodwill.”

What’s good about it?

“Goodwill” is having a friendly or cooperative attitude, so there’s a close correspondence with metta. Thanissaro describes goodwill as “wishing the other person well, but realizing that true happiness is something that each of us ultimately will have to find for him or herself, and sometimes most easily when we go our separate ways.”

What’s not so good about it?

When was the last time you used the word “goodwill” or heard it being used? Perhaps on a Christmas card: “Peace on Earth and Good Will to all Men”? Perhaps in a business transaction: paying more for an asset than it’s worth? It’s just not a very common term. I certainly do talk about metta as wishing people well (which is another way of describing goodwill), but the term “goodwill” isn’t one I use much, or hear used, and it doesn’t really resonate with me. But perhaps it resonates more with you.

6. Kindness

Metta isn’t often translated as “kindness.” The phrase “metta is kindness” only brought up 88 results on Google.

What’s good about it?

Kindness is, like love, an almost tangible quality. It’s something we’ve all felt. We know we’ve experienced it within ourselves, and we can think of examples of people we know who are kind. And kindness is as much an attitude as an intention. What images come to mind when you think of kindness? I think of ordinary everyday situations, with one person being helpful and loving toward another person — perhaps someone who’s in trouble. So kindness is close to compassion, which fits with metta as well, since metta is the basis of compassion.

What’s not so good about it?

"My religion is kindness."

“My religion is kindness.”

Not much, in my opinion. Of all the terms we can use to translate metta, I think kindness is the most accessible, in that it’s part of our daily emotional experience. It’s easy to picture it. Think of the Dalai Lama’s smiling face: I think of his face as expressing great kindness. I think it’s closest in terms of describing a volition or intention: with both kindness and metta the intention is to help others find happiness. It does have a feeling quality about it — a sense of warmth and gentleness — but kindness is more defined by our intention and action than is the word love. Kindness is less ambiguous than love, and less over-used. It’s more palatable to think in terms of being kind to oneself as opposed to loving oneself.

So, out of all the possible options for words to translate metta, my vote is for that simple, accessible, appealing word, “kindness.”

What do you think?

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Body image booster: loving-kindness meditation

Margarita Tartakovsky, PsychCentral: In her book The Need to Please: Mindfulness Skills to Gain Freedom from People Pleasing & Approval Seeking, psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher Micki Fine, MEd, LPC, explains that each of us is made of love.

And as we water the seeds of love within us, we can learn to accept ourselves precisely as we are. When you have a negative body image, this can be incredibly hard to do.

That’s when having a daily practice is important. We can start creating new ways of thinking and feeling about our bodies and ourselves.

A daily practice that can be really helpful…

Read the original article »

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When metta doesn’t mean “love”

I remember feeling very frustrated – and frankly a little baffled – when I was first learning the metta bhavana practice. Especially around the fourth stage, the difficult person. How was I supposed to feel warmth and affection for somebody I admitted not getting along with?

It was a tall order, and the whole idea left me feeling inadequate. I often sat there wondering what the heck metta was supposed to feel like, because I just didn’t get it. I figured there must be something wrong with me. I’m wondering if you’ve ever found yourself in a similar place.

Well, there’s nothing wrong with me or you. One of the problems stems from the typical translation of “metta” as “lovingkindness.” While that’s not incorrect, it’s a little misleading, especially in the case of the difficult person. I think many of us have such strong images of what “love” means that it limits our perspective.

I recently came across a story that beautifully illustrates what metta for a difficult person REALLY is. A Thai monk by the name of Ajaan Fuang tells of his encounter with a snake while on retreat. It had come into his room and taken up residence behind one of the cabinets. So the two of them lived together uneasily for a few days, avoiding each other as best they could. The snake didn’t seem to want to leave, even though Fuang left the front door wide open.

Finally on the third day, Fuang quietly addressed the snake in meditation. He said, “Look, it’s not that I don’t like you. I don’t have any bad feelings for you. But our minds work in different ways. It’d be very easy for there to be a misunderstanding between us. Now, there are lots of places out in the woods where you can live without the uneasiness of living with me.”

And as he said those words, the snake quietly slipped out the door and left.

See also:

So this is metta for a difficult person. For some people (like that snake), it wouldn’t be appropriate to approach them with love and affection. They don’t want it from us. They don’t trust us, and we don’t really trust them either. We see the world in very different ways. In fact, if we try to hug a snake, it would probably bite us back! Obviously, that would not be wise.

But we can still wholeheartedly wish for their happiness and well-being — on their terms, not ours. Sometimes the best way for two people to be happy is to part ways. So in this case metta is more like respect and goodwill, as opposed to love and affection.

One thing I’ve learned over the years is that the Buddha was a very pragmatic man, and that his teachings reflect that. If I find myself struggling over my practice, then it probably means I’m barking up the wrong tree. There is no need for struggle.

Sometimes, the best thing I can do is to accept my own limits. I don’t have the heart of a Buddha, and I’m not able to love all beings genuinely. Not yet at least. And that’s OK. I still have my aspirations and intentions. And they will bear fruit in time. But for now, to struggle and beat myself up over my inadequacies does no good whatsoever. Best to let it go and move on.

And that moving on in itself is a practice of metta. Metta for myself, that is. I’m learning how to face everything in life with gentleness and acceptance. Including my own failings and foibles.

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Auntie Suvanna: Seeking love in the wrong place

strictly ballroom movie poster

What do you do when your heart says “yes” to someone who’s determined to break it? Auntie Suvanna’s wisdom and compassion manifest in advising a woman who’s looking for love in the wrong place.

Dear Auntie,

I have been practicing Buddhism for several years. However, I keep getting caught in the Shempa with this particular man. I am 60 years old and divorced for 8 years. I met this man 3 years ago when I started dancing. He was attentive and pursued me for a short time (I won’t go into details) and then dumped me in pursuit of a 31 year old (30 years his junior) who had emotional problems and confided in him. He told me at first that she was only a friend who saw him as a father figure, but I later found out that they had a sexual encounter. I did not speak to him for about a year but did see him all the time at the dances. But, it goes on.

Because we both love dancing and there is no other place to go, we see each other almost every week. After some time, and given the fact that the girl has moved to California, my rapport with him has been better. Recently, I have seen him a few times under the guise of him wanting to “practice” dance. This has led to a few for lack of better words (since he is now 65) sexual encounters, after which he is very pleasant and then goes his merry way. He calls me his “friend” and best dancing partner he has ever had, and then of course, goes on to take another woman to the dance the next week. I have not been with anyone else, although there have been a few opportunities.

I am ashamed that I can’t keep away from him and always seem pleasant and friendly towards him. I know it has to do with not feeling loved by my father and there are thoughts in my head that if I just am…pretty enough, good enough…then…all of this I know intellectually…I have sent myself Loving Kindness, but, still I am left with this shame that I can let myself be treated so poorly. Because he edges himself into my life as my friend…and because I feel I have no rights since he makes no commitment and I go along with it, I am trapped by my feelings. He is now pursuing someone else at the dance and I see the same MO taking place. I feel that he really wants her and a relationship with her. This of course only makes me feel like chopped liver. I do not want to give up dancing, but seeing them together breaks my heart. I need practices to help me with this. Please!

Seeking love in the wrong place


Dear Seeking Love:

Several years ago Auntie had the idea to write a humorous Buddhist advice column. Since then, the sad relationship questions have been pouring in…well, trickling. So, again, duty calls, and humor will have to wait!

Anyway thanks for all the detail – that is helpful.

Unfortunately the answer for anything that we want to run away from seems to always be to go more into it. There are several angles we could choose. One is how the man feels about other women. Another is how he feels about you. Another is how you feel about him. And finally, how you feel about yourself. Maybe you can guess which one Auntie is going to pursue.

You described how you feel about yourself in terms of shame, I have no rights, I am not pretty enough, and I am chopped liver. What is shameful about loving someone or being fond of someone who does not give you what you want? We are addicted and we chase after sources of suffering. This is being human. There is the idea in Buddhism that the cup is already broken. This applies to the heart as well. Your father maybe helped break it. It was maybe half broken when you were born. Other people probably chipped in. Seeing this and being creative with this is our work. Some level of satisfaction may be achieved when we can lean this far into craving and despair.

You know yourself pretty well and perhaps already know this. This man is not the cause but the occasion of your pain. Yes, many men your age like younger women. And many women much younger than you like older men. But beyond all that, beyond all conceptions of who is a victim and who is not, and who has the power and who does not – seeing for a moment through the veil of craving – it looks like this man is helping you see the vulnerability and tenderness of your own heart. And you don’t want to see that, and none of us do, and yet it is part of our life.

To the degree that you’re acting like you’re ok with the situation, you are participating in it, you are helping create it. Perhaps he doesn’t want what you want. He thinks of you as an FWB (Friend With Benefits). There’s nothing wrong with what he wants, and there’s nothing wrong with what you want – on the other hand he doesn’t know what you want. You are withholding information, trying to protect yourself, but this only makes it more lonely and painful. You cannot protect yourself from the truth, from how you feel, from desire. If you feel bad about yourself, the best thing you can do is be honest.

In terms of more formal practices…Are you familiar with tonglen? Especially what Pema Chodron calls ‘Tonglen on the spot’ — for chopped liver-ness and shame. Just don’t count on it getting rid of the pain. Don’t use getting rid of the pain as the motivation. Let your motivation be that you want to more deeply understand and appreciate your life.

I also suggest not just practicing formal loving kindness meditation, but actively putting more work into deepening friendships and expressing more love in your life. Really being kinder to yourself and to others. For some of us, this might mean going into therapy and/or talking about issues with good friends.

Auntie’s friend Paramananda suggests chanting the Green Tara mantra.

It also could be useful to reflect on the third precept:

I undertake to abstain from harming [even myself] because of sexuality.
With stillness, simplicity and contentment [and straightforwardness], I purify my body.

I haven’t actually read either of these books but perhaps they could help: Mark Epstein’s Open to Desire and Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance.

I hope this has been of some use. If you feel like giving an update later, please do!
Love,
Auntie Suvanna

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Ursula K. Le Guin: “Love doesn’t just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; re-made all the time, made new.”

Ursula K. Le Guin

Everything’s impermanent, but rather than be depressed by this fact we can use it to our advantage. Bodhipaksa looks at the Buddhist practice of developing lovingkindness and offers six lessons that can help us keep love alive.

Lovingkindness meditation presupposes a number of factors that cause love to grow. If you’re not familiar with the practice of lovingkindness meditation I wholeheartedly recommend that you try it. This kind of meditation is a gentle but powerful way of working with our emotions, and I’ve noticed the following principles embedded in the form of the meditation:

  1. First, we have to pay attention to ourselves. If we’re not aware of ourselves and our feelings then we’ll lack the responsiveness that allows us to love others. In the formal practice we bring our awareness into the body and into our hearts.
  2. If we don’t cultivate a basic sense of caring for ourselves and our own well-being then we’ll also find it hard to love others. So we need to start here and develop a wholesome relationship with ourselves. The sitting practice of lovingkindness always begins with us cultivating love for ourselves.
  3. Then we have to give others our attention. We can’t include love in a package of multitasking. We need to spend time with others, and to give them as best as possible our full attention. When my attention is divided between my daughter and, say, some article I’m trying to read, an unpleasant tension arises that can easily lead to impatience. It’s much better just to put down what I’m doing and focus just on her. The more we give people our undivided attention the easier it is to cultivate love for them.
  4. We need to relate to others as feeling beings, and to take their happiness seriously. When we see others as being either means or obstacles to our own happiness we’re not relating to them as feeling beings. To love is to take another’s well-being seriously, and we can’t do that if we don’t acknowledge the need others have to be happy.
  5. We need to communicate that we love others. In lovingkindness meditation we commonly repeat phrases like, “May you be well. May you be at ease.” Even if we never speak those words to the other person they have an effect on how we feel. But outside of meditation it’s even more powerful to communicate with another person that we love them. This doesn’t have to be done in words, of course. A glance or a kind act can be an effective way of communicating a sense that we love others. But the words themselves are less ambiguous and often more powerful.
  6. We need to repeat the above frequently. Love, if it’s not being cultivated, is beginning the slow process of withering. We need to bear others in mind as often as we can, calling to mind our love for them. We need to spend as much time as we can with those we love. In this way, our love can keep being reborn and our irritability, intolerance, and indifference towards others can fade quietly away.

Buddhism teaches that everything’s impermanent, which can seem like a real downer until you look more closely into what that means. At first glance it can seem rather depressing: I’m impermanent, and everything I love is impermanent too. I’m going to die. Everything I love is going to die. Love itself is impermanent. Oh, oh! Here comes bleak existential despair!

But the fact that everything is impermanent is actually the most wonderful thing about life. If anything about me was not impermanent then that would be something I couldn’t change. If my personality was not impermanent I’d never be able to change it. I’d be stuck with those aspects of my personality (like my irritability and my distractedness) that cause me most suffering. And the same’s true for you. If you have a tendency to depression, or to over-eating, or to anxiety, those tendencies are impermanent. They can be changed. They can become less predominant in your life. They can even disappear entirely.

What we call a personality is nothing more or less than an amazingly interwoven fabric of impermanent events…

Love dies, but it is also reborn. Hatred is reborn, but it also dies. What we call a personality is nothing more or less than an amazingly interwoven fabric of impermanent events being born and dying and being reborn again.

We tend to think of death and rebirth in “macro” terms — about the end of one life of the beginning of another, but actually death and rebirth are taking place in this very moment as cells, sensations, feelings, emotions, and thoughts are coming into being and passing away. Left to their own devices — without our conscious intervention — the overall texture of our personality won’t tend to change much over time. Things keep changing, but they change in such a way that the stay the same, much as you can look at an eddy in a river and see that in every moment it’s different, but it still has about the same size, shape and position.

Generally it takes conscious intervention to bring about a change in the balance of the various mental factors that constitute a personality. A mindful awareness of our mental states, combined with skillful action, helps shape the process of death and rebirth that’s moment by moment unfolding within our consciousness. Something as simple as letting go of a critical and angry train of thought helps that part of ourselves to pass on into oblivion. Choosing to think about what we’ve achieved helps bring about more happiness. Contemplating the fact that, just as we do, others experience suffering and wish to be happy helps to bring into being the forces of compassion and love.

Love is not a thing that happens to us. It’s a thing we do.

Events can shape us, of course. Tragic events, unpleasant events, unexpected blessings, and the responses of others can bring about profound changes in our personality and outlook. But it’s the way we respond to outside events that is the true shaper of our being. It’s we, ultimately, who change ourselves.

It’s good to bear all of this in mind when we contemplate love. Love is not a thing that happens to us. It’s a thing we do. It’s not a “thing” that lives inside of us and can be left to its own devices. It’s an action. It’s not an experience. It’s a way of relating.

If we are not bringing love into being, it is in the process of dying within us. If we don’t sustain our love, it withers — slowly perhaps, but inexorably. We have to pay attention to love in order that it continues to live and grow within us. And this means that we have to pay attention to others in order that our love continue to flourish.

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Goals in the spiritual life

Lotus bud reaching upward for the light

Are spiritual goals dangerous triggers for grasping and selfish desire? Do we need to let go of goals in order to be truly free and happy? Sunada doesn’t think so. She argues that it’s not the goals themselves that are the problem, but how we approach them.

Try not. Do or do not, there is no try.
— Yoda

We all come to the spiritual life with some sort of goal in mind. Like wanting a calmer mind, less anxiety, a kinder heart – in short, to become a better person. Yes, spiritual practice can bring us all these things, and they’re entirely valid reasons for starting down that road.

But at some point we hit a wall. What happens is that TRYING to achieve these things only gets us so far. At some point, we find ourselves with the exact opposite of what we wanted – a lot of self-doubt and frustration.

 I don’t think there’s anything wrong with goals. After all, the Buddha never would have gotten enlightened if he hadn’t single-mindedly worked toward it.

I’ve often had people ask me whether I think they should let go of their goals – that maybe it’s a sort of grasping that has no place in the spiritual life. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with goals. After all, the Buddha never would have gotten enlightened if he hadn’t single-mindedly worked toward it. So then how do we navigate this process that seems so elusive?

The wise quote I bring in here is not from the Buddha, but a different wise man — er, creature — Yoda. When I first heard Yoda’s advice to Luke Skywalker 30 years ago, I thought it sounded like the ultimate parody of Zen-like wisdom. I couldn’t make any sense of it. But now many years later, I’ve discovered that it’s quite profoundly true. Yoda was a pretty wise being!

This is what happened. From very early on, I kept up a regular practice of the Metta Bhavana meditation (the development of loving–kindness). Even though I had a lot of difficulty with it, I did it because I was pretty sure it would help me to open up a heart that had shut down through years of depression. Besides, I had a sort of bulldog-ish attitude that if I kept at it, something would eventually break through.

Any time we try to reach for a goal that we think is “out there,” we’re trying to create something out of nothing, forcing something. So it feels … out of reach.

And boy, did I struggle. My teachers would talk of feeling a warmth in my heart area, recalling kind thoughts and images, and wishing people well. But I sat there feeling blank and gray. Nothing. When the gentle approach didn’t work, I tried MAKING myself feel happier by sheer force of will. Not much success there either. It was all too forced and artificial, and I’d feel thrown right back to where I started.

I’ve since learned that this is a fairly common experience with the Metta Bhavana practice, so I now know it wasn’t just me! But everyone encouraged me to keep trying, that something would happen eventually.

And something did happen. It’s not that I changed in any objective way. Instead, it was my perspective that shifted. I started seeing my “problem” in a completely different way, and then it grew to no longer be a problem.

See also:

The shift began with my decision to start every meditation session with an extensive period of a body scan (focusing on successive areas of my body to help bring my awareness to myself and the present moment). I also imagined what it feels like to come home from a long day at work and to relax — to sink into my favorite easy chair, feel proud of what I’ve accomplished today, knowing that I’ve done all I can — and now it was time to let go to the “ahhh….” feeling.

What doing this allowed me to experience, quite viscerally, was a sense of physical contentment in the here and now. In that moment, I was perfectly happy being just as I was. I didn’t need anything else to make me feel complete. It was the simple joy of being present. It didn’t mean I had gotten rid of my problems, and I was still the same imperfect person I always was. But in that moment, none of those things were weighing on me. I was content, plain and simple.

..when we find something real in our present experience that’s a small seed of what we want to become, and connect with it in an authentic way, then it’s no longer a question of trying or reaching … In Yoda’s words, we “do” it naturally and effortlessly.

Once I contacted that very real, very authentic feeling of contentment, it was an easy step to move into the Metta Bhavana practice. For the first stage, I imagined myself wrapped in warm blankets of kindness, which made it easy to feel warm emotions toward myself. As long as I stayed connected with a genuine feeling of contentment and pleasure, moving toward each successive stage of the Metta practice came much more easily. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If I’m feeling positive about myself, and in touch with my own happiness, my good mood naturally spawns kind feelings toward others. It’s pretty elementary and obvious, now that I think about it.

On days that I was not feeling so good – feeling angry or depressed, for example – this technique worked just as well. I usually couldn’t make myself feel any better, but that was OK. By starting with a foundation of relaxation and physical contentment, I found I could lift myself out of my “poor me” self-absorption. I was able to wrap myself in sympathy and acceptance of how I was, even though I couldn’t change the ugly mood. So it was this kindly self-acceptance that I touched in that moment that I used as the foundation of my metta practice.

This experience helped me to understand that metta is a quality I always have within me, and it had nothing do to with how I’m feeling at the moment. Metta is not the opposite of anger or depression. Metta is an attitude of patient acceptance toward whatever is there – good, bad, or anything in between. It’s always accessible to me, as long as I care to notice it and call it up.

As I reflect on my experience with the Metta practice, I see lots of parallels to the whole idea of personal development off the cushion as well. Any time we try to reach for a goal that we think is “out there,” we’re trying to create something out of nothing, forcing something. So it always feels like a reach, or perhaps even out of reach. This is what I assume Yoda meant by “trying.”

If we take the Buddha’s teachings to heart — that all beings have the potential for enlightenment — then we all have the seeds of wisdom, compassion, and other every other conceivable positive quality within us.

But when we find something real in our present experience that’s a small seed of what we want to become, and connect with it in an authentic way, then it’s no longer a question of trying or reaching. By simply turning our kind attention to its presence, it begins to grow on its own. We don’t have to “try” anything. In Yoda’s words, we “do” it naturally and effortlessly. We don’t grasp for something distant and off in the future. We appreciate and cultivate something joyful that we already have, and can readily touch.

Now I bet there are doubters out there among you that are wondering whether you have any inkling of the qualities you wish you had. If we take the Buddha’s teachings to heart — that all beings have the potential for enlightenment — then we all have the seeds of wisdom, compassion, and other every other conceivable positive quality within us. It’s only our own self-doubt that keeps us from seeing them.

So if you’ve been trying to become a better person in some way, stop trying. Instead, look for all the ways that you already have those qualities in some small, nascent form. Trust that they are there, and think of ways to encourage those qualities to blossom. For example, if we want to become kinder, it’s important that we feel good physically – that we eat well, get enough sleep and rest, and have time to laugh and enjoy ourselves. We need to be kind to ourselves in the same way that we’d want to be kind to others, so that we begin to touch an authentic experience of our own kind heart. If we set these sorts of conditions, the kinder side of us can’t help but come out and grow stronger.

So the crux of the matter is in how we view our goals. Are we grasping for something off in the future in a way that denigrates our present experience and triggers a poverty mentality of lack, need, and desire? Or are we aspiring toward a higher ideal that’s on the same path we’re already on — while at the same time loving ourselves as we are now, and encouraging ourselves to feel whole, warm, abundant and blessed? It’s that switch in our state of mind that makes all the difference. That’s what sets the tone for what kind of future we create for ourselves.

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Seven Buddhist strategies for coping with stress

Girl blowing dandelion seeds, against a background of dark trees.

We all know that mindfulness and meditation are increasingly taught as ways of coping with stressful situations. But what about other forms of Buddhist practice? A research study led by Dr. Russ Phillips, a Buddhist and professor of psychology at Missouri Western State University, identified 14 Buddhist coping strategies by asking Buddhist practitioners what coping mechanisms they used and by examining the outcomes.

The use of religion to cope with stress — known as religious or spiritual coping — has been studied across many different faith traditions, but rarely within Buddhism. Much research has been conducted on meditation and mindfulness, two common Buddhist practices, but rarely has this research examined such practices in a Buddhist context. Additionally, meditation and mindfulness are not the only coping mechanisms used by Buddhists, and yet no scale of religious coping in Buddhists exists to complement the measures created for other religions.

To produce the questionnaire. Dr. Phillips’ team initially interviewed 24 Buddhists of varying backgrounds across the United States about how Buddhism was involved in the ways they dealt with stress. They then used a scientific process called “thematic analysis” to determine common Buddhist coping strategies across the participants’ responses. As a result of this initial research, the team hypothesized that there were 18 major ways Buddhism was involved in the coping process, and for each form of coping various questions were devised for a questionnaire.

In the spring of 2008, Dr. Phillips recruited 550 Buddhists from across the United States to take the Buddhist coping questionnaire, which had been narrowed down to 95 items. Participants were asked to consider a stressful event, and rate how often they engaged in what each item said (for example: To cope with the stressor, how much did you remind yourself of the concept of impermanence? — “Not at All” — “A Little” — “Quite a Bit”).

The hypothesis that there were 18 types of coping strategy within Buddhism was the first casualty — a statistical analysis revealed there were only 14.

The seven Buddhist coping strategies that were studied further are:

  1. Meditation: Focusing in a relaxed, nonjudgmental way on one structured aspect of a situation (e.g., breath, mantra).
  2. Mindfulness: Nonjudgmental awareness and acceptance of the present moment.
  3. Lovingkindness: Being nonjudgmental, compassionate, kind to oneself and others.
  4. Morality: Practicing right speech, right action, and right livelihood, and doing these things with good intention.
  5. Impermanence: Realizing nothing lasts forever.
  6. Comprehensive Karma: Acknowledgement that one’s past, present, and future actions will have consequences, and that one has the ability to control his/her current actions.
  7. Fatalistic Karma: Feeling a sense of helplessness, that one’s past actions have led to one’s current state, and there is nothing one can do to avoid those consequences.

The study determined that the participants’ answers on these seven forms of Buddhist coping did better at predicting how participants were feeling about the outcome of the stressful event than other measures on the survey — such as how spiritual a person was, or what age they were.

The seven were not selected for especial study out of the total 14 strategies that had been identified because they were most effective, but simply because the team were most interested in those particular approaches. The other seven coping strategies will be researched more thoroughly in a follow-up study.

How much the participants had actually used each of these seven approaches correlated closely with how they felt about the outcome of the stressful event. Thus, meditating, practicing mindfulness, practicing ethical right action, lovingkindness, or considering the Buddhist ideas of impermanence or karma were helpful.

The only exception was fatalistic karma — the more a person felt helpless and believed there was nothing they could do about the stressor because their past actions led to the current situation, the worse the participant reported feeling about themselves, and the poorer the outcome of the stressful life event. While all of the other seven coping strategies were shown to have some positive effect, only fatalistic karma was shown to have a negative effect.

Some participants reported to the researchers that a fatalistic karma outlook is not an accurate portrayal of how karma works according to Buddhism. However, the researchers are at pains to work out that they were not studying Buddhist theology, but the coping methods actually used by Buddhists (and believed by those people to be a part of their Buddhist practice), whether or not those coping methods are genuinely Buddhist. They were therefore examining people’s perceptions of what Buddhism teaches rather than the “official” Buddhist versions of those teachings.

Interestingly, meditation and mindfulness, although shown by the study to be highly effective coping strategies, were not as effective as practicing lovingkindness, right understanding, and impermanence, which jointly scored 3.1 out of a possible 4.0 for effectiveness, compared to a joint 3.0 for meditation and mindfulness.

The most effective coping strategies are therefore cultivating lovingkindness (metta), or being nonjudgmental, compassionate, kind to oneself and others; right understanding, or trying to see the world as it truly is; and reflecting on impermanence, or the notion that all things (including our problems) pass.

The other seven coping strategies, to be studied later, were:

  1. Sangha support: turning to other Buddhists for advice, connection, and compassion.
  2. Dharma: turning to study of Buddhist teachings for support.
  3. No-self: recognizing that there is no separate self because everything is interconnected and impermanent.
  4. Inter-being: understanding that everything is interconnected and nothing is independent
  5. Right understanding: trying to see the world as it really is.
  6. “Bad Buddhist”: understanding that your problems arise because you are not practicing correctly.
  7. “It ain’t easy being Buddhist”: recognizing that Buddhism is not an easy path and that the benefits of practice lie in the future while we must experience difficulties in the short-term.

The “Bad Buddhist” approach to coping was one of the few coping strategies, along with karmic fatalism, that had a negative effect. This was not a strategy that the research team had expected to find. It instead emerged from the reported experiences of the Buddhist practitioners participating in the study. Similarly, the existence of the “It ain’t easy being Buddhist” strategy was not predicted in advance by the researchers, but was reported by practitioners.

13% of the participants in the survey were immigrants from other, mostly Asian, countries, while the rest were western Buddhists.

Dr. Phillips’ team intends to continue its analysis, and to publish the results of the other seven major forms of Buddhist coping later this summer.

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Emo Philips: “I used to think that the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. Then I realized who was telling me this.”

Emo Philips

Given that it’s the mind that makes up the stories with which we try to make sense of the world, perhaps it’s not surprising that the mind tells us the story that it is the most important part of ourselves.

We think of ourselves as distinguished from other animals by our thinking. When we think about what makes us uniquely us (as opposed to another individual human being) we often point to our memories — another brain function. And that’s all, in some sense, true. Our thinking faculties are well-developed compared to other animals. But often we seem to over-privilege our thinking, and even lose touch with other aspects of ourselves. People often confuse, for example, experiencing the breath in meditation with thinking about the breath. And often we get so much caught up in thinking, and identify so strongly with our thinking, that we lose touch with how we’re feeling.

In Buddhist teachings what we call head and heart are seen as being so closely connected that they are in fact one faculty, the heart-mind, or citta (pronounced “chitta”), and so there has been less of a tendency to privilege either the mind or the heart, reason or emotion, as has happened in the west. The essential unity of the heart and mind has been observed by hundreds of generations of meditators, and is also being recognized by modern neuroscience. The pathways in the brain that process emotion also process thought — the two seem (as Buddhism has always pointed out) to be inseperable.

Thoughts exist interdependently with feelings and emotions. The next time you’re in an irritable mood, notice how your thoughts arise from that mood. An irritable emotional state conditions the mind to look for things to criticize. We’ll even find fault with things or people that a short while before were praising as being wonderful. When you’re in a good mood your thoughts are bright, appreciative, and optimistic. So our thoughts are conditioned by our emotions.

It’s no accident that we talk about a leader as being “the head” of his or her organization

Similarly, our emotions are conditioned by our thoughts. For example, if we allow ourselves to be drawn into a conversation with a very critical person – say someone who is good at finding fault with others – we might well find that through speaking in a critical way (and speech after all is just an externalized form of thought) we start to experience a negative state of mind. Our words — our thoughts — have given rise to an emotion.

Of course this works for positive emotions and constructive thoughts as well. If we encourage ourselves to look for things to appreciate we’ll cultivate a more positive emotional state, while a positive emotion will tend to give birth to constructive and appreciative thoughts.

This in fact is the mechanism for the metta bhavana, or development of lovingkindness, practice. In this meditation we consciously call to mind thoughts such as “May I be well, May I be happy, May I be at peace,” repeating them mindfully. What tends to happen is that over time a shift in our emotions takes place. Thoughts such as these evoke a positive emotional response from the heart.

And emotions (and the thoughts that are bound with them) are deeply conditioned by the body. You can usually tell when someone is depressed just by looking at their posture. The chin is down, the chest is slumped, the movements are slow. Similarly with fear or aggression, the physical manifestations are obvious. Change your posture and you change how you feel. When we begin to relax tensions in the body, as we often do at the start of a session of meditation — taking our awareness around the body and letting go of unnecessary effort — the mind becomes calmer and the emotions more positive.

Children can solve math problems better if they are told to use their hands while thinking

The link between the body and citta is now being studied by neuroscientists. It’s been shown, for example, that children can solve math problems better if they are told to use their hands while thinking, and if you learn something while sitting at a desk it’s easier to remember the information when you’re once again behind a desk. Actors find it easier to memorize lines while they’re walking around.

We have a peculiar tendency to see parts of an interconnected whole (the mind/heart/body) as separate (the mind, the heart, and the body) and then, moreover, to play the game of “which is most important.” For most of in the west, the head (thought, rationality) is seen as top dog (it’s no accident that we talk about a leader as being “the head” of his or her organization).

But those of us who meditate often come to realize that the intellect cannot be relied upon alone. While the mind has a wonderful ability to construct opinions, to imagine the outcomes of actions, and to speculate about the past, we need to check out our thoughts against the more physical and emotional faculties of feeling, instinct, and intuition. It’s through testing our thoughts in this holistic way that deeper insights emerge. Feelings in turn should be subjected to analysis. We may feel rage, for example, and consider acting upon that emotion, but our thinking faculty can imagine the potential consequences of our actions, helping to dampen our ire.

One of the functions of meditation is for us to pay attention to all of our experience and to see how it all interrelates (thoughts and feelings, body and emotions, thoughts, and body). It’s fascinating to notice how, as we start to notice and value this interconnectedness, we begin to appreciate ourselves as a whole, rather than as a collection of disparate parts. Through mindfulness we become more integrated and more complete, and more balanced. We become more intuitive. We even become more wise. And while the brain may still tell us it’s the most wonderful organ in the body, it will also recognize that it’s just one wonderful organ amongst many.

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A student asks: In my metta bhavana practice, I can’t seem to feel anything toward the neutral and difficult person. Any advice?

In my metta bhavana practice, I can’t seem to feel anything toward the neutral and difficult person. Any advice?

Sunada replies: Oh yes, I’m familiar this problem because I struggled with it myself for quite a long time. How are we supposed to feel love for someone we don’t know, or harder still – someone we may not even like? I think the trap that many of us fall into is thinking that metta has to be a great uplifting feeling of love and affection. (In other words, if our meditation were a scene in a movie, we’d be expecting to hear romantic violins in the soundtrack! HA!) And when we don’t feel it in such a grand way, we assume that there is no metta present.

But I am 100% confident that you have plenty of metta in you. Everybody does. So let’s figure out how we can recognize its presence.

Let me start by reframing what metta is. It’s not only an emotion of love, but also more broadly an outlook, attitude, or intention of respect and kindness. It can be quite subtle — something that doesn’t feel much like an “emotion” at all.

So let’s try this experiment. Think of any recent or ongoing human tragedy that involved people you don’t know personally. Darfur. Hurricane Katrina. The 2004 tsunami in Indonesia. Sept 11 in New York. Thousands of people that you don’t know died or faced unspeakable hardship. Doesn’t it bring at least a little bit of a stab in your heart when you think about all the pain and suffering they went through and likely are still going through? Isn’t there a place in your heart that feels with conviction that all people have the right to safety and the chance to live with dignity and peace? Well, there you are. This is metta for a neutral person.

Or let’s take some more mundane situations. Do you hold doors open for strangers? Do you help people who are lost and stop you on the street to ask for directions? This is more evidence of metta for people you don’t know.

Now let’s think of your difficult person. Imagine for a moment that you are walking down the street one day and witness your difficult person getting into an accident and being badly injured. Would you have the heart to just walk away? Or would you rush in to help in any way you can, even if it’s just to call for emergency help? Well there you are again. This is metta for a difficult person.

You see, metta in its larger sense has little to do with knowing or even liking someone. To me, it’s about recognizing my very strong conviction about human rights — that everybody has a right to live in safety, to have basic needs provided for, to live happily, free from physical or emotional pain, and to be held in esteem by friends, family, and community. And our task, as members of this human race, is to work toward providing these needs for each other, as best we can, in an unpredictable and changing world. We don’t do this just for those we know and love. We work to contribute to the good of all, because we recognize that we are an interdependent web of humanity.

So when we practice metta toward our neutral and difficult person, keep these sorts of thoughts in mind. Remember that we DO care about them and want them to be happy and free from suffering. It doesn’t really matter if we don’t feel love and affection for them, since that’s not really the point here. It’s about recognizing our shared humanity. And even if we can’t sustain our feelings of conviction for an entire sit, just setting an intention of well-wishing is enough. Just that simple act alone is sufficient to begin cultivating the rich soil of metta in our hearts.

Editor’s note: The student with whom this exchange took place has granted permission to publish this journal entry, and will remain anonymous. Wildmind treats all student journals as strictly private, and never allows outside parties to read them without explicit permission from the student.

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D.H. Lawrence: “Thought is a man in his wholeness, wholly attending.”

D.H. Lawrence

Thought, I love thought.
But not the juggling and twisting of already existent ideas.
I despise that self-important game.
Thought is the welling up of unknown life into consciousness,
Thought is the testing of statements on the touchstone of consciousness,
Thought is gazing onto the face of life, and reading what can be read,
Thought is pondering over experience, and coming to conclusion.
Thought is not a trick, or an exercise, or a set of dodges,
Thought is a man in his wholeness, wholly attending.
D.H. Lawrence

Often beginners to meditation think of thought as “the enemy.” They want to stop thinking altogether, to “have their minds go blank” (as if the mind would be blank without words running through it). This is a misunderstanding, but it’s a reasonable one, which is no doubt why it’s so common. After all, who isn’t oppressed by the sheer quantity and the nature of their thoughts?

Thought runs wild. It’s relentless, seemingly tireless. Trying to suppress thought is like a crazy game of whack-a-mole. If you try to force a thought out of your mind it pops up behind you.

Thought is obsessive. It grabs hold of a topic and gnaws away at it like a dog worrying a bone. You can take the bone away from the dog a hundred times, but the next time you look the dog’s in action again.

Thought is like water. Try to hold it back and it’ll find a way through. If you try really hard to dam thought back it simply increases in pressure until it bursts through your barriers.

Thought is like lightning over a dry forest. Thought ignites our emotions, sparking envy, doubt, ill will, longing, and fear. And as we try to beat out the flames of one unwanted and destructive emotion sparks fly up to start new fires.

Thought does, undoubtedly, cause us problems.

Also see:

But thought can also play a useful role in meditation. Thought can be channeled and can become a tool to help our meditation practice go deeper. To take the most obvious examples, in the Metta Bhavana (development of lovingkindness) practice we use thoughts like “May all beings be well, happy, and free from suffering” in order to awaken an attitude of care, kindness, and concern from ourselves and others. In mantra meditation we repeat a phrase that evokes the qualities of the enlightened mind. And it can also be useful to do what the Insight Meditation tradition calls “noting” where we label the sensation, emotion, or process that’s most prominent in our experience. For example we can say “anger, anger” when that emotion is present. Or we can say “pulsing” or “burning” when pain is present. In all these examples thought is consciously used as a way to help the mind develop positive qualities such as lovingkindness, compassion, and mindfulness.

But Lawrence’s quote suggests that thought itself can be a form of meditation. What he’s talking about of course is not the random stream of images and words that so often wells up in the mind. And as he points out he’s not even talking about “the juggling and twisting of already existent ideas” — as usually happens when we’re thinking about work, or our schedule, or about politics. Lawrence is talking about something much more profound, which is reaching into the depths of our being and tapping into an inner source of wisdom. He’s talking about learning from life and from self-observation. He’s talking about reflection and contemplation.

So how do we do this? How do we learn to reflect and to contemplate? How do we learn to use the very act of thinking as a form of meditation?

There isn’t room in this short article to fully explore this, but here are a few suggestions.

1. We need to set aside time for reflection and contemplation. Genuine thought, of the kind D. H. Lawrence is praising in his poem, requires a combination of mental stillness and time, and this can’t be achieved in the odd moment of repose in a busy schedule. We need to set aside time for just sitting, or perhaps even better, for walking.

2. We need to cultivate the habit of silence. If we’re always living on the surface of our minds, as we do when we’re engaged non-stop in chatter, we’ll find it hard to go deeper. Real reflection emerges from inner silence. So we need, at least sometimes, to “unplug” ourselves from stimulation — from the TV, the iPod, the newspaper, the radio. And we can look for opportunities to experience silence more profoundly by spending time alone. We need to learn to be comfortable with silence, which is another way of saying that we need to learn to be comfortable with ourselves.

3. We need to adopt an attitude of wonder, which in turn involves letting go of the assumption that we already have the answers. Much of the time we see not-knowing as a sign of failure, as something to be avoided. In fact, admitting that we don’t know, and being comfortable with the discomfort of not-knowing, is the start of wisdom. It’s only when we let go of the assumption that we have all the answers that we’ll look more deeply.

4. We need to be self-critical and “test of statements on the touchstone of consciousness.” Much of the time we’re happy with the first answer that pops into our head when we ask ourselves a question. But “first thought” is not always “best thought.” Our first thoughts are often conventional thoughts, or “the juggling and twisting of already existent ideas.” They’re still valuable however, because they can act as a springboard to more authentic reflection if we are prepared to question them and to look for their flaws (as well as whatever truths they may contain).

5. Genuine reflection involves “man [i.e. a person of whatever gender] in his wholeness.” Contemplation involves not just discursive thinking (in the head, as it were) but the testing of our thoughts in the heart. The litmus test of genuine reflection is whether it leads ultimately not only to greater understanding, but also to greater happiness and compassion. Now reflection may make us uncomfortable. For example we may come to realize that there’s something profoundly wrong with the way we’re living our lives, and this is something that is bound to promote a sense of unease at the very least. But even with discomfort such as that there is also a sense that we are on the right track. We can feel in our heart that there is something real and true about the conclusions that are welling up into consciousness. And this is the fruit of the genuinely reflective live — the sense of a life well-lived.

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